Trendy California isn't a trendsetter when it comes to relying on cell phones. And while the 1987 movie "Wall Street" helped introduce the then-brick-sized mobile phone to popular culture, New York and other Northeast states lag in dropping landlines. Surprisingly, Oklahoma and Utah lead in going wireless, according to federal estimates released Wednesday.
At least 26 percent of households are now cell-only in Oklahoma and Utah, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated. That rate was at least 20 percent in nine other states — Nebraska, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, New Mexico, Texas, South Carolina and Tennessee — and the District of Columbia.
The study is sure to be watched closely by telecommunications companies trying to understand state and local markets better, and by government, academic and commercial survey researchers using telephone polling to monitor health trends, politics and much more.
The CDC, blending its own 2007 survey data with Census updates, found the prevalence of cell-only households varies widely by state — sometimes within regions and even between neighboring states. This is tied to differences by state in demographics known to predict wireless-only ownership, especially being young and renting rather than owning a home.
States with the fewest cell-only households: Vermont (5 percent) and Connecticut, Delaware and South Dakota (6 percent each). South Dakota was near the bottom even though next-door Nebraska was near the top. Also below 10 percent: Rhode Island, New Jersey, Hawaii, California (9 percent), Montana, Massachusetts and Missouri.
In New York — where Michael Douglas as corporate raider Gordon Gekko roamed lower Manhattan barking orders on a huge early cell phone in "Wall Street" — 11 percent of households were cell only.
The study also estimated how many adults only have cell phones. Those estimates mostly came within a point or two of the household numbers.
The study's lead author, Stephen Blumberg, senior scientist at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, noted the data are from 2007 and all signs indicate people keep substituting cell phones for landlines at a steady pace.
"We would expect that today in 2009 the prevalence rates in every state have increased, perhaps by 5 percentage points or more. What we don't know is whether the rate of growth is the same in every state," Blumberg said in an interview.
By asking about telephone usage in its monthly in-person health surveys, Blumberg's agency is the only source for data on prevalence of cell-phone-only households. It estimates more than one in six American homes — 17.5 percent — had only wireless phones as of a year ago.
The health survey doesn't have enough interviews to produce reliable state-level estimates in most states, so Blumberg's team looked to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, with large state samples. The researchers compared CPS data on demographic groups known to be associated with cell phone usage and adjusted the CDC state estimates to conform.
U.S. telephone surveys, especially on the state level, typically sample only landline phones. There's growing evidence from the 2008 election that excluding cell phones could hurt poll accuracy, at least a little. Blumberg noted that in health surveys omitting cell-only respondents could, among other things, underestimate the number of smokers and binge drinkers — and, paradoxically, those who exercise regularly.